When you “earn” the third overall pick in any draft you know the season just didn’t go to plan. That’s how it was for the Minnesota Vikings who couldn’t catch a break in 2011. Leads were blown, injuries piled up, and defeats were commonplace as the Vikings became the poor relation inthe ultra-competitive NFC North.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any talent on this roster.
It may be too soon to talk of being competitive when the Packers, Lions and Bears are who they are, but all hope is not lost for Minnesota. It’s now time to break that down, while also remembering just why they finished where they did.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1) They Will Hurt Some Quarterbacks
If you have a defensive line that features Jared Allen, you’re going to get to the quarterback a lot. That’s not hyperbole; that’s just the way it is. In fact, no other defender (in addition to picking up more sacks) knocked the quarterback to the ground more in the 2011 regular season. He managed a massive 32, practically guaranteeing a painful Monday morning for quarterbacks. Throw in working on a line that also features Kevin Williams (12 sacks and hits) and Brian Robison (14) and you’re looking at a unit that is ready to inflict a lot of pain on passers. That’s going to be critical in the NFC North.
2) That Line Wasn’t as Bad as You Thought and It Just Got Better
When your team gives up a number of sacks, or your quarterbacks appear to be running for their life all too often, the offensive line always takes the blame. Traditionally a weak spot for a Vikings team that has relied on Adrian Peterson to mask their deficiencies, 2011 was something of a turning point for the guys up front. Sure, Charlie Johnson had some struggles, but he was never as bad as some made him out to be. Indeed, most of the protection problems came from the quarterbacks themselves, with the player charged responsibility on most sacks being Christian Ponder (11). As a matter of fact, the line itself, led by John Sullivan (+22.5) ended the year our seventh ranked offensive line. Losing Steve Hutchinson hurt, but the possible addition of a franchise left tackle makes this a line trending upwards.
3) A Big Year for Erin Henderson?
We didn’t make any secret of our love of the play of Erin Henderson last year. He rarely found himself playing every down (a crying shame) but he was still able to turn 590 snaps in to a +21.8 grade. Only three 4-3 outside linebackers better this grade. Our own Sam Monson broke down the linebacker here and if you’ve got a second, read that to see what an impact he can make. It remains to be seen who rounds out the trio, but we do like the look of a linebacker group that contains Henderson and Chad Greenway.
4) Plentiful Playmakers
I’ll get to my doubts and hopes for Christian Ponder later, but the Vikings have got themselves two of the league’s top playmakers at any position to ease the load. Let’s first look at Adrian Peterson, the medical marvel. Anyone who has watched him run knows what he is; the best pure runner in the NFL today. Assuming he’s back to full health (rumors suggest the non-contact jersey will be coming off next week) there isn’t a back I’d rather give the ball to than “AD”.
But he’s not the only guy who can make something happen out of nothing. There may not be many more exciting and versatile receivers in the game than Percy Harvin. The man who finished sixth overall in our receiver rankings, did a fine job when asked to do more running between the tackles, is a massive threat on special teams, and a joy to watch. Our only hope is that the Vikings realize what they have in front of them and get him on the field more to really show what he can do.
5) Antoine Winfield Back Where He Belongs
Back in 2010, Antoine Winfield was one of a select group of cornerbacks who went an entire year without giving up a touchdown. He’s also one of a select group of cornerbacks who teams should actively run away from, as he is just that good in the run game. There’s no doubt the Vikings defense struggled without him in a number of ways. Winfield is a truly rare type of corner who can play outside, man the slot, and is an asset on running plays (and don’t even talk about throwing screen passes his way, it always ends badly for the offense). This secondary needs the 35-year-old to push it on.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1) Can Ponder Step Up?
Given how last year played out with the lockout, all quarterbacks deserve a degree of slack cut for them. It’s hard enough being a rookie at the best of times, but doing it with just four weeks of coaching help? It’s near impossible, despite the success that Cam Newton found.
But that doesn’t mean you give them a free pass and just expect improvement. There have been too many failed first-round quarterbacks for anyone to do that. Instead, we go into the season not sure what we’re going to see from Ponder. Are we going to see the guy who made life hard for his offensive line by holding onto the ball longer than anyone not named Tebow, Vick or Newton, with an average three seconds in the pocket? A guy who took 20 sacks when opposing teams blitzed? A guy who completed just 35.4% of passes when pressured?
Probably not. It’s hard not to imagine some sort of improvement, but for the Vikings to take a big step forward Ponder needs to take a big step forward. Only time will tell if he’s up to it.
2) Depth and Reliability in the Secondary
I mentioned how much I love Antoine Winfield returning and I know we have some in the office who are huge fans of Chris Cook, but I need to see more to be convinced. Especially when you consider Chris Carr and Zachary Bowman are the next guys up on the depth chart. I’m looking at the quarterbacks and wide receivers in the NFC North and wondering if the Vikings, with a safety pairing that has proved little, can contain them.
3) Will the Defensive Line Start to Wear Down?
It may seem odd that after previously extolling the virtues of the defensive line I’m now going to question it. It’s not so much the players as it is what is asked of them. Now I’m sure they wouldn’t have it any other way, but when will there come a point when all the snaps that Jared Allen has taken start to wear him down? Over the past four years no defensive linemen has been on the field more, with Allen in the top four every year in terms of total number of snaps. I’d ask the same of Kevin Williams. Back in 2008 he was the top defensive tackle in the game, but he’s not the same player he once was (though still one of the best) after leading all defensive tackles in snaps the past four years. Eventually, that catches up with you and it has me wondering why the Vikings don’t get their depth on the field a little. Plenty of players have gone from being one of the best, to watching their play fall off a cliff.
4) Can They Find a Weapon to Support Percy Harvin?
When you consider that Percy Harvin is on the field for less than 60% of all Vikings offensive snaps, you start to realize Minnesota need some other guys to step up at wide receiver. I’ve seen enough of Michael Jenkins and Jerome Simpson to not have confidence in either of them being that guy. Don’t get me wrong, I think both players have skills, but are they ready to be prominent members of the offense? Jenkins peaked as a number two receiver (and has been downward trending since) while Simpson is one of the league’s premier boom or bust receivers. If Minnesota wants to limit the reps of Harvin without becoming predictable on offense, they need one of these guys to be more than what we know them to be.
5) They play in the NFC North
However you look at it you can’t escape the fact that next year, like every year, the Vikings will play in the same division as the Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions. Or if you like, they’ll be facing Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler. Which also means they’ll have Clay Matthews, Ndamukong Suh and Julius Peppers coming after their own quarterback.
When you’ve fallen so far off the pace so quickly, while your rivals have pulled away, it’s hard to claw your way back to the top. They could take a step forward in terms of improving their team yet make little headway in the NFC North, a demoralizing prospect for sure.
What to Expect
Sometimes it’s better to under-promise and over-deliver. Low expectations should see the Vikings surprise people because they still have the makings of a talented team, even if some of the key players are getting on a bit. The playoffs may be too much right now, but getting close to.500 and watching Christian Ponder develop? That would be a big success.